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Al-Qaeda strikes back

Jane Corbin

No-one has yet claimed responsibility for the bomb blasts in Bali, but the finger is already pointing at Osama Bin Laden's organisation, al-Qaeda.

Significantly there was a third, almost simultaneous, blast at the US consulate in the capital of Bali, Denpasser.

Al-Qaeda is far more fluid and effective than the West's conventional response has suggested

It may well have been al-Qaeda's calling card, effectively sending the message that fortified embassy compounds may be off limits, but there are plenty of "soft" targets in Islamic countries, bars and nightclubs full of Western tourists and visiting businessmen.

But there is another message: that al-Qaeda is far more fluid and effective than the West's conventional response has suggested.

We are discovering that al-Qaeda is not an army, nor even an organisation, but that most powerful and dangerous creature: a movement.


As our soldiers stomped over the mountains of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda simply melted away, able to re-emerge anywhere their millions of potential footsoldiers would offer them sympathy.

In recent months al-Qaeda, working through Pakistani militant groups, has murdered French naval engineers in Karachi and American worshippers in a church in Islamabad. It has killed German tourists in Tunisia and targeted British warships in the Mediterranean.

The organisation may have been wounded by the war waged against it by coalition forces in Afghanistan, but it is still very much alive. The Bali bombs send the ominous message that the wounded beast is not only recovering but fast regaining its former strength.

A few months ago at their headquarters in northern Afghanistan, Bagram air base, US military intelligence officers told me that by stamping on the pool of al-Qaeda terrorists, the boot of the US military had only scattered the drops to the furthest corners of the world.

Lieutenant Colonel Jasey Briley said ruefully: "We expect them to disperse, be harder to deal with, become more of a guerrilla-style operation."


Only last month, the CIA and other Western intelligence services were warning that the highest concentration of al-Qaeda followers outside Afghanistan and Pakistan was in South East Asia.

For the past year, ever since the attacks of 11 September, al-Qaeda has signalled increasingly that this will be one of its new hunting grounds.

Guard outside US embassy in Jakarta
The US embassy in Jakarta is heavily defended

There were foiled attempts last December to blow up the US, British and Israeli embassies in Singapore, using seven massive truck bombs.

Another 30 Islamic militants were rounded up in Singapore in August.

The Malaysians have made arrests too and in the Philippines, US special forces have been training local forces to combat local Islamic extremist groups responsible for a string of kidnappings and murders.

Once again, al-Qaeda is targeting vulnerable states, as it did in his former stronghold of Afghanistan and before that the Sudan.

Natural target

Al-Qaeda was able to use the capital of the Philippines, Manila, in 1993 to plan the first, unsuccessful attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. The foiled plot to blow up a dozen US airliners, Operation Bojinka, was hatched in Manila too.

Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir: Teaches the concept of "personal jihad"

Indonesia, with its vast Muslim population and its pro-Western government which rules only with the support of Islamist groups, is a natural target for al-Qaeda recruiters and those who plot the organisation's terror attacks.

Ironically, for months now Western and some Asian governments have been pushing the Indonesian president to arrest an Indonesian cleric suspected of having links with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, a fiery preacher, runs a religious school near Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which teaches the concept of "personal jihad" in order to defend Islam. He also campaigns for an Islamic state in Indonesia.

According to the government of Singapore, the cleric is the leader of Jemah Islamiah, the Islamic group which officials say is a terror organisation with cells throughout the region and strong links to al-Qaeda.

Up until now, the Indonesians have insisted they have no evidence against the cleric and cannot arrest him.

US President George W Bush, whose maxim is "You're either with us or against us", is sure to leave the Indonesian president in no doubt as to where her interests now lie.

But the more arrests there are, the more al-Qaeda's ranks are likely to be swollen by the disaffected. At the last count, there were more than 70 Islamic organisations in Indonesia, many of them radical and recently formed.

US success

While Indonesia has been unwilling to detain such a public figure as its own firebrand cleric, there has been one quiet behind-the-scenes coup for America.

In June, al-Qaeda's key point man in the region was quietly apprehended and handed over to the US authorities.

Omar al Faruq, a Kuwaiti, had been living in a village an hour from Jakarta where he had married a local woman and seemed to have blended successfully into the community.

He has now begun to talk and is telling his captors there is a link between al-Qaeda and Jemah Islamiyah and its leader Ba'ashyir.

What Faruq has told investigators has raised new fears that South East Asia will come to rival Afghanistan and Pakistan as a staging post for al-Qaeda.


It seems that every time one head is struck off the body of al-Qaeda, another one grows.

Despite the arrest of al-Faruq, the Bali bombers still struck, and despite a series of recent arrests of middle ranking al-Qaeda operatives, others have filled the breach.

Many of the top figures, those who inspire and make the strategic plans for the organisation, have just melted away.

Bin Laden himself is presumed to be still alive but has not been reliably tracked since last December.

There have been many sightings of him in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but still he eludes capture.

Another missive from him was recently broadcast on the Arabic al-Jazeera television chaneel. This time allegedly a "statement" bearing his signature and praising the bombing of a French oil tanker in the Yemen last week, another attack laid at al-Qaeda's door.

It is the latest in a series of messages from the leadership. Two earlier ones recorded on audio tapes, apparently from Bin Laden and his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zowahiri, and broadcast on al-Jazeera last Sunday and Thursday are feared to have been coded messages to supporters which may have triggered the Bali attacks.

A year ago this very week President Bush gave a warning to the world: 'You mark my words, people are going to get tired of this war on terrorism. And by the way, it may take more than two years, in a variety of theatres."

Bali, the tropical paradise, was one theatre of war no-one ever imagined.

But no-one has any doubts now that the war against al-Qaeda and its myriad off shoots will last for many years. It has become truly international and the terrorists have given notice that they will target vulnerable Westerners wherever they can - throughout the world.

Panorama: Al-Qaeda Strikes Back will be broadcast on Sunday 20 October at 2215 BST on BBC One.

Production team:
Reporter: Jane Corbin
Producer: Thea Guest
Producer: Mike Rudin
Editor: Mike Robinson

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